Whenever I tell anyone that I play the cello they tend to say something like:
“I love the cello, it’s such beautiful instrument.”
Then I remember how lucky I am. To play the cello is to love the cello. What I really mean is: you have to love the cello to play it. Is that because of its soulful sound, its potential to express deep emotion? No. It’s because it’s really annoying to carry! And if you do play the cello you will certainly be asked many times over:
“Do you ever wish you played the flute?”
I never thought about whether I loved the cello or not when I began to play. Just before I started secondary school, my mum took out a cello from the back of her wardrobe. I’d never seen it before, even though I’d used that wardrobe many times to play ‘hide and seek’. She said I could learn to play it when I went to my new school. On my first day, the music teacher asked us to write down if we would like to play an instrument and if so what, I wrote down “Yes. Cello.”
But I didn’t really ‘get into’ the cello until I was a teenager and I joined a local youth orchestra. Even though rehearsals were on Saturday mornings – I loved it! I got up early and took two buses, changing at Manchester’s Piccadilly Gardens. The worst thing was, there was really only one seat where I could sit easily with a cello: the first one that has a wider space (designated nowadays as a priority seat). It was usually empty at that time on a Saturday morning but if someone was there, in that seat, I would have to go to the back and risk getting flung across the bus when it went round a corner, hanging on to that cello in its cloth case and terrified that it would get broken.
After rehearsals, seeing as I was in town, I liked to go window-shopping, to a record shop called Rare Records and to Gibbs, a second-hand book shop or go and browse in the music library at St Peter’s Square, except that I had that cello to carry around with me. It was a real nuisance.
Quite often, I’d get a lift from my mum especially to concerts. One time she had to hire a car as ours had broken down. It was bigger than ours and amazingly the cello fitted into the boot. But when we arrived at the pre-concert rehearsal Mum couldn’t get the boot open. The key didn’t seem to work. She even went to the police to ask if they could get it open for us! But they said these cars have a separate key to open the boot, to make them difficult to break into. We didn’t have another key and there wasn’t time to get one so I had to watch the concert from the audience and not play. Everyone asked me why I wasn’t playing. I was so embarrassed!
Not as embarrassed as I was when I had to go to a different room from usual, for my cello lessons at school. I had to walk through a classroom full of boys. It was the most excruciating experience, not least because I was shy and skinny, in a frumpy uniform – box-pleated navy skirt and knee length grey socks. I could feel them all watching me and sniggering. It was a few months before lessons resumed in the usual room, to my relief. I couldn’t have done that much longer!
There were many things that could have put me off playing the cello but overriding them all, was the thrill I got from playing the cello in the youth orchestra. We played Liszt’s Hungarian Rhapsody, Brahms’ Academic Festival Overture, Schubert’s Unfinished Symphony and Beethoven’s Fifth. I didn’t always understand the notation but learnt to copy the other players. I was in awe of the first clarinettist and first oboe-player playing their impressive solos but was glad I belonged in the security of the cello section and loved being part of the full-orchestra sound with strings, woodwind, brass and percussion in full force.
I’d go home and tell Mum all about it, singing the cello part! And she’d say, “that doesn’t sound like the tune, what does the tune go like?” I had concentrated so hard on learning the cello part, I thought that was the tune!
A turning point came when on one of my trips to Rare Records I bought an LP of Elgar’s Cello Concerto in a famous recording by Jacqueline du Pré. I listened to it over and over and fell in love with it … its dramatic opening, soul searching phrases and soaring melodies. “So that’s what a cello’s meant to sound like!” Years later, studying for my degree, when my teacher suggested I learn the Elgar for my performance exam, I was so excited, I rushed off up town, straight away, to buy the music. And as I swept my bow across those opening chords, I was in my element. Nothing was ever going to put me off playing the cello! Do I wish I played the flute? Not in a million years!
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